by Sam Quinones

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Dreamland is a book that gets its literary DNA from what is called New Journalism, a subgenre or radical movement within journalism that was pioneered by writers Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, and Gay Talese in the 1960s and 1970s. New Journalism is defined by its use of traditionally "literary" techniques within factual reportage, particularly in its inclusion of the journalist as themselves immersed in the story being told. Dreamland falls in this lineage, given its combination of the thrilling and narrative qualities of a novel with the factual realism of journalism.

The central narrative of the book is the American heartland's drug addiction epidemic, particularly opioid addiction. Quinones uses a small town in Ohio to create a vivid image of America as if it is a person suddenly becoming sick and addicted to drugs, like the all-American boy next door transforming into a nightmarish figure overnight. In this light, the drug epidemic is seen as a kind of invader that is quickly killing the populace and then spreading through the most economically vulnerable parts of the country.

One prominent subplot of the book describes the lax regulation of pharmaceutical companies, such as Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin®, and how easy it was for patients to obtain OxyContin® prescriptions from doctors during the 1990s. The other subplot focuses on the cultivation and distribution of black tar heroin, which originated from a small area in western Mexico.

The common theme that connects these two stories (besides the fact that the two substances discussed are opioid narcotics) is that both substances were heavily marketed by their producers. OxyContin® was created by a large pharmaceutical corporation that had massive marketing funds, while black tar heroin was cleverly marketed by regional entrepreneurs.

This common thread shows Quinones's central message: capitalism, if left unchecked, can produce destructive products into the market. The capitalist system itself is not necessarily flawed, but in a world where dangerous narcotics exist, it creates pathways for sales that feed addiction rather than solve it. The small town in Ohio that Quinones features—which once had a football field–sized community pool called Dreamland—is simply a microcosm of what's going on in many parts of the country.

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